A white woman dubbed “Cornerstore Caroline” falsely accused a 9-year-old black boy of groping her in a Brooklyn deli last week.
The aftermath of the incident was captured in a viral video posted on October 10 in which Teresa Klein says into the phone with who she claims is a 911 dispatcher: “The son grabbed my ass and she decided to yell at me.” Klein is referring to Someko Bellille, the mother of 9-year old Jeremiah Harvey. The boy and his younger sister can be heard crying in the background. “I was just sexually assaulted by a child,” Klein adds as bystanders criticize her and attempt to comfort the child.
Two days later, Klein spoke with journalists at the store, where she watched surveillance video of the incident. The video shows Harvey walking behind Klein, and turning to someone behind him. His backpack brushes against Klein as she leans over the store’s counter.
Klein issued a partial apology after viewing the footage. “Young man, I don’t know your name but I’m sorry,” she said. CNN reports that New York police do not have a record of Klein making a 911 call.
Klein said that the incident had nothing to do with race, and alleges that Harvey’s mother acted aggressively after Klein’s initial complaint, according to the New York Times. Klein says she plans to press charges against Bellille, the boy’s mother, leading local community members and outside observers to argue that Klein’s framing of the mother as a problem plays into harmful stereotypes of black women as aggressive, while her initial charges against the child were compared to the allegations levied against Emmett Till, a black boy murdered after a white woman falsely accused him of grabbing her in 1955.
“That day, fear was placed into my child’s heart,” Bellille said during the meeting.
This incident adds to a seemingly endless stream of incidents where a white person has called police on a black person over completely nonexistent offenses, like sitting in Starbucks, using neighborhood pools, or staying in an Airbnb. Last week, a woman called police on a black man babysitting two white children and followed the man to a gas station, saying that she “just had a funny feeling,” after seeing them together. The man was watching the kids for a friend.
The incidents have captured attention for showing just how quickly feelings of white discomfort and suspicion can lead to a call to police. But this latest incident is also a reminder of how that suspicion is not limited to black adults, but also extends to children, showing how black children are easily exposed to the justice system and denied the childhoods accessible to their white peers.
Black children are subject to scrutiny and suspicion that white children aren’t
The October 10 incident is just the latest in a long string of incidents involving 911 calls made on black children. Take for example, Reggie Fields, a black 12-year-old who had the cops called on him in June after he accidentally cut part of the wrong yard.
Linda Krakora, part of the family who called police on Fields, said calling police was the best way to resolve the ongoing disputes between her family and Lucille Holt-Colden, who paid Fields to cut her lawn. But fewer than two weeks after that incident, Krakora called police on Fields and other children as they played on a Slip-and-Slide in Holt-Colden’s yard, saying that the children were slamming into her fence.
Before Field’s story made national headlines, there was the story of Jordan Rodgers, an 8-year-old black girl selling water on a San Francisco sidewalk to fund a trip to Disneyland. Rodgers was with her mother when a white woman approached her and called police, saying that the girl was “illegally selling water without a permit.” When the woman, Alison Ettel, was dubbed “Permit Patty” online and roundly criticized on social media, she attempted to spin the call as being more about the mother’s reaction to the accusations.
Similarly in New York, Klein attempted to justify her behavior by claiming to respond to Jeremiah Harvey’s mother. But much like the other examples, her efforts to defend calling police on children by blaming an adult rings hollow, and calls attention to the ways that the behavior of children of color are penalized and subjected to police response in ways that the behavior of other children are not.
Research has shown that starting in childhood, black people are subjected to heightened scrutiny and suspicion. In 2014, researcher Phillip Goff found that by the age of 10, black boys begin to be seen as less innocent than their white peers, with studies showing that observers overestimate a black boy’s age by as much as four and a half years.
“Although most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood, Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious,” Goff notes.
This “adultification” is not limited to boys, a Georgetown study released in 2017 found that black girls as young as 5 are already perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls of the same age. And it’s likely that these beliefs play a role in police violence against black children, like when an 11-year-old girl suspected of shoplifting in a grocery store was struck by a police Taser in September, or the 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, a black boy shot and killed by police while holding a toy gun.
The consequences of this go much further than the increased possibility of police violence. Perceptions of black children as less innocent and older than their actual age can also push black children into the justice system. Schools in particular have become the site of a highly contested debate about the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” a system where black and brown students face criminal punishments for infractions that civil rights groups argue could be handled within school.
As Johns Hopkins professor Vesla Mae Weaver noted for Vox last month, encounters with law enforcement can have a lasting impact on black children and teens. “Qualitative accounts of policing black and brown youth underscore that these early encounters give a lasting memory of the state’s potential for violence against your person or community,” Weaver notes. “These youths learn that government sees them as potential assailants deserving of oversight, not kids being kids.”